Time for UN to embrace reform or accept irrelevance

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There is a bizarre lexicon of code phrases that professional diplomats use to mask their real thoughts.

When they report a "useful exchange of views" with a foreign interlocutor, it generally means nothing got decided. When they say they had a "full and frank discussion," it means the session was rowdy and may have come near to blows. And when they report that some institution may be "fading into irrelevance," it means it's going down the tubes.

That's where we stand with the United Nations today. Are we going to get a revitalized and reformed UN? Or is it going to "fade into irrelevance?"

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There is a narrow window of opportunity to effect the reform acutely necessary if the UN is to emerge from recent scandal and political impotence and regain stature and relevance.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose own stewardship of this unwieldy, bureaucracy-ridden organization is under fire, is in the forefront of those calling for change. Declaring last year that the UN was at a crossroads, he appointed a panel of wise men and women to make recommendations for improvements and restructuring. The panel came back in December with some drastic comments. They included criticism of various UN agencies, called for efficiencies in the UN bureaucracy, and faulted the UN for lagging in combating terrorism.

One of the panel's most significant recommendations for restructuring was expansion of the UN Security Council beyond the present five permanent members with veto power - the US, Britain, Russia, France, and China - and 10 revolving members, each of which serve two years. The aim was to provide more realistic representation than was countenanced when the UN was founded.

Last week Mr. Annan released details of his own recommendations, largely based on the suggestions of his independent panel, but going substantially beyond them in the area of human rights. Specifically he called for a remake of the UN's Human Rights Commission, which has been sharply criticized by the US for paying lip-service to human rights, and paradoxically has included in its membership such chronic abusers as Cuba, Libya, and Sudan.

In his report, Annan conceded that the commission had lost credibility and been manipulated by such offenders. He proposed scrapping the present Human Rights Commission and replacing it with a smaller one made up of member nations pledged to observe the highest human rights standards.

Annan wants his ideas discussed in the next few months, then acted upon at the next UN General Assembly in September.

The US, without whose financial and political support the UN would be moribund, is clearly impatient for UN reform, and would similarly be in favor of speedy action. The Bush administration has just nominated John Bolton to be the next US ambassador to the UN. A tough critic of business-as-usual at the UN, his selection sends a strong signal that, in the view of the US, time is running out.

Mr. Bolton's mandate, if he is confirmed, will presumably be not to torpedo the UN but to rectify the flaws the Bush administration perceives in it.

The UN's huge contribution around the world in the humanitarian field is beyond dispute. It has brought water to villages that had no water, rescued starving children, brought shelter to refugees, defused leftover mines that would otherwise have blown farmers to pieces, and performed countless other life-preserving and life-saving functions.

It is in the political realm that the UN is most vulnerable to criticism. Its diverse and disputatious membership has proved incapable of achieving unity in confronting some of the world's most menacing problems. In the eyes of the Bush administration, its most galling demonstration of ineffectiveness was its inability to enforce a series of UN resolutions against Saddam Hussein, and its irresolution as the US removed him.

As President Bush makes the pursuit of freedom and defense of human rights the main thrust of his foreign policy in his second term, the emphasis on reinventing the UN's Human Rights Commission should be well received in Washington. If that should translate into a sincere and forceful effort on the part of the UN to champion human rights and democracy - even in those member states that do not presently nurture them - it would do much to improve the US-UN relationship.

The UN is a ponderous institution and does not embrace change easily. Perhaps its recent troubles and challenges will now induce it to cast off its lethargy.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary-general of the UN in 1995.

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